Using Technology to Level the Academic Playing Field

High tech lessons spark passion and confidence at Niemes Elementary School
Feb 10, 2014 12:30 PM ET

Using Technology to Level the Academic Playing Field

Meg Jimenez knew that education was changing, and she was determined to propel Niemes Elementary School into the technological age. As a member of the first 12 Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, Jimenez, principal of the Cerritos, California school, was prepared to help her teachers adapt the way they taught. New tools would require a new approach. But what she came to learn was that new technology did more than change the lessons. It changed the kids.

The students at Niemes span a wide academic range, from overachievers and gifted students to students with special needs and learning disabilities. Jimenez found that new technology – tablets, Wi-Fi, and teachers trained to make the best use of them -- leveled the academic playing field. Students from all academic levels were able to ignite their academic interests through lessons delivered via apps that were fun as well as educational.

While most educational apps teach science- and math-based skills, Jimenez sees mobile technology as something more. “The tools are changing the way students are thinking,” she said. “We have an obligation to use technology in a way that will increase cognitive levels, learning and productivity.”

The latest state test scores seem to support her view of the leveling effect of the new technology. The scores of Niemes students skyrocketed in John Zawacki’s fifth grade class. After one year of the VILS program, the number of students rated “proficient” or “advanced” in science jumped 9 percent in the past year to 66 percent -- almost double the annualized rate over the previous eight years. Zawacki thinks he knows why: armed with tablets in his science lab, students were asking questions and looking for answers on their own. “Many of these questions were likely ones they may not have ever received answers to, or questions they may never have developed on their own, if it weren’t for the immediate access to information they had.” Zawacki said. Greg Lewis, another science teacher at Niemes, agreed. “I think the iPads increased their interest and especially their retention.”

School Superintendent Mary Sieu witnessed this powerful leveling effect firsthand. During a classroom tour with Jimenez, a student was chosen at random to show Sieu the science project he was working on. Using his tablet, he would photograph codes glued to the faces of a cube, which would automatically download a lesson stored online and open a video starting the lesson. His teacher looked a bit nervous —the student who was chosen happened to have a learning disability. But he presented the project perfectly, explaining his thinking process and the objective of the lesson. It was plain to see that the high-tech lessons sparked the boy’s interest in the material and gave him confidence to try new things.

For the first time, he was keeping up with his peers.

Parents also got a chance to see the technology in action. Jimenez wanted to let them see firsthand the leveling effect of technology and the impact it can have. So instead of presenting slideshows at a Parents Open House, the teachers showed off their new tech-savvy classrooms and curriculum.

Parents walked up to interactive bulletin boards and scanned codes with tablets to open a digital showcase of the same lessons their students were exploring in class. Parents who before had been anxious about VILS were becoming more comfortable with the technology the longer they “The positive outcomes of the VILS program on the whole, couldn’t be denied,” said Jimenez. And after the hands-on session she found that, “the parents, well, they didn’t need any more convincing.”

Fact: A recent survey from the Verizon Foundation, conducted by the research firm TRU, showed that more than 1 in 3 middle school students already use smartphones and tablets to complete homework assignments. Yet in the classroom, only 6% of these students used a smartphone and 18% used a tablet for assignments at school.